They say that in space no-one can hear you scream. The truth is even more disturbing. In space, no-one can tell that you aren’t American.
“No, I’m the British representative,” I said in Embalgon for the third time. I wasn’t going to correct the minister for calling me ambassador – he didn’t need to know that I was a public relations officer, only sent because others had struggled with his language. “Here to discuss the new embassy.”
“Julian Atticus, is this ‘English’ your language?” The Embalgon interior minister’s gills flapped in agitation. Though his scales remained a sedate blue, I sensed that he was finding this as frustrating as I was.
“Absolutely,” I said. “We invented it.”
“Good.” The minister narrowed one pair of eyes, the Embalgon equivalent of a smile, and sat back in his chair. “Then you represent the Americans, and their debts.”
I leaned back too, enjoying the fine silk-like materials from which the Embalgon’s made their furniture, gazing out the window at the city below. It was a beautiful place, even the factories forced to match its undulating curves if they wanted a share of the lucrative local trade. A trade the British government hoped to profit from, by setting up an embassy to regulate British business here. Our business presence was nothing compared with the Americans, but the Embalgons gave embassies great influence over their natives’ businesses, and the tax potential alone made the venture worthwhile.
At least now I knew why negotiations had stalled – the bloody Americans and their government’s bloody debts again. Was this how it felt to be Canadian back on Earth, constantly associated with the ruins of their southern neighbour’s government?
I mustered my thoughts, and the Embalgon words to express them, but the concepts didn’t quite match. I didn’t hold up much hope for this conversation.
“On Earth, language groups are not the same as nations,” I said. “Americans and Britons share a language, but we are politically distinct.”
I could see that I was getting nowhere. It was like trying to explain the difference between sex and gender to some humans, the ideas so utterly connected in their minds that I might as well have used the same word. For an Embalgon, language, nation, culture, even economy were so utterly intertwined as to be inseparable. I might have been able to explain this to an academic, or even a teacher, but to an elected politician? No chance.
Being labelled as American was indignity enough. Now I was going to have to include their debts in the negotiations.
“So how much do the Americans owe from their previous embassy here?” I asked, realising as I said it that I couldn’t even bear to use ‘we’ or ‘us’. I could lie to the press a dozen times a day without flinching, but couldn’t bring myself to pretend to be a Yank. So much for my strength of character.
With one suckered hand, the minister held out a flat device the size of my palm. I read the figure on the screen. The sheer size of it choked my brain – nearly double what I was even authorised to discuss. This deal was not going to happen.
“Who’s currently responsible for American businesses trading here?” I asked, as casually as I could.
The minister snorted.
“Responsible,” he said. “If only someone would be responsible for them. No-one is keeping them in line. No-one is regulating their shipping. The Great Sea only knows where all the goods are going.”
“Then whoever takes over this debt is responsible for those businesses too? For regulation, oversight, and so on?”
A look of disappointment filled the minister’s face. He’d clearly hoped to keep this part from me, to fob off a perceived burden along with the debt.
Cultural confusion can so easily cut both ways.
“Fine,” he said. “We are willing to drop twenty percent of the debt if you will just take control of those factories with it.”
“Fifty percent,” I said.
We didn’t shake on it. Human skin feels repulsive to Embalgons, and theirs brings us out in a rash. Instead encryption codes were exchanged and attached to an electronic agreement. The deal was done.
I called our ambassador from the shuttle on the way out of atmosphere and told her the good news. In space, no-one can tell that you aren’t the Americans.
That means no-one can stop you taxing them.
After Dylan Hearn’s review of Lies We Will Tell Ourselves, it seemed like a good time to return to one of the characters from that collection, so I chose Julian Atticus – bitter Englishman, publish relations officer and reluctant diplomat. If you’d like to read more from him then why not pick up Lies We Will Tell Ourselves, available on the Kindle.
And if you’d like to read more free flash fiction then check out my Flash Friday stories, and come back here every Friday for more of the same.
Photo by Cliff1066 via Flickr creative commons.